Senior projects tackle ‘real-world’ problems, serve community

May 14, 2019

Sean Benjamin of mechanical engineering demonstrates the prosthetic hand developed by his team, Prosthesis for New Syria, by picking up an egg at Design Day. Around 40,000 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon require upper limb prostheses. However, most current transradial prostheses are expensive, not easily accessible, or not easily customizable. The team used 3D printing technology. The printed prosthetic parts are combined with a muscle sensor to obtain muscle signals from the patient’s residual limb, which in turn actuate flexion in the device’s fingers. At left is fellow team member Crystal Kim. (Photo by J. Adam Fenster/ University of Rochester )

Is there a better way to monitor who’s knocking on your door when you’re not at home? What if surgeons could realistically practice operations ahead of time – but not be unnecessarily exposed to X-rays? And how do you entertain young patrons in a children’s library, in a way that stimulates their interest in science and technology?

These were among the myriad challenges that students in the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences tackled during their senior design projects at the University of Rochester this year.

Of the 90 projects, more than 50 were sponsored or supervised by outside companies, clinicians at the University’s Medical Center five minutes away, and local institutions and service agencies. This gave the students an opportunity to apply the skills they’ve learned in academic labs and classrooms to “real world” problems.

Here’s a sampling:

A student talks about the project he and his teammates created.
Matt Sperr, at left, talks about the Kinetic Ball Machine he and his teammates created for the Rochester Public Library.
‘The kids are going to love it’

Tonia Burton’s wish list for the children’s section of the downtown Rochester Public Library included “something like a Rube Goldberg machine” that young patrons could interact with in a large display area. Something that might also get the children interested in exploring science and engineering.

And now she’s got it – thanks to mechanical engineering students Seth Schaffer, Catherine Mawn-Mahlau, Matthew Sperr, Hunter Phinney, and Benjamin Hoog.  They came up with “this amazing thing,” says Burton, the library’s children's services consultant. “The kids are going to love it. It is going to give them something different to do, and hopefully lead to a lot of interesting conversations.”

The Kinetic Ball Machine the engineering students created certainly generated a lot of attention on Design Day, the Hajim School’s annual showcasing of senior capstone projects, held this spring in the Goergen Athletic Center. Two large wooden gears carry brightly colored balls to the top of the display; a spiraling tube made from recycled green plastic juice containers lets the balls roll back down and over the spine of wooden toy dinosaur to the starting place. There’s also a wooden castle to add a literary theme to the mix of science, engineering, and sustainability.

“I like making kids happy,” says Mawn-Mahlau. “And this seemed like a creative project where we would have a lot of freedom. Tonia showed us random pictures of museum exhibits as inspiration, but really the only constraints were to fit it under the stairwell in a particular area.”

Schaffer designed the gear-style revolving lift and used a CNC (computer numerical control) router in the Rettner Hall fabrication lab to produce it. One of the biggest challenges? “We’re using plastic toy balls that aren’t really meant for engineering applications, so they behave really erratically, and it was hard to predict what they will do,” Schaffer says. Students from the University’s Creative Arts Club painted an outer-space themed backdrop, giving the project an interdisciplinary flavor.

Burton says it was a “great experience” working with the engineering students. “They were amazing. They were very flexible and even suggested coming downtown to meet with us at 8:30 in the morning. I was so impressed by that. Their communication was great, they were very responsive, and I learned a lot about engineering. In some ways it was easier to work with them than some of our vendors.”

Students work on a prototype of an optics exhibit.
Left to right: Ryan Walton, Benjamin Larson and Dingzhe Zheng work on a prototype of an optics exhibit for Rochester Museum and Science Center commemorating the work of Nobel laureate Donna Strickland.
Explaining optics to a broad audience

Each of the last four years, senior design teams at the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics have created exhibits for the Rochester Museum and Science Center to illustrate to the public the science of light and its applications.

This year Calvin Uzelmeier of the RMSC staff asked students to prepare an exhibit for a new floor celebrating notable women in Rochester history.

“After we sat down and thought for a little bit,” says Benjamin Larson ’19, “it was kind of easy to decide who we should highlight.”

Donna Strickland, an Institute of Optics alumnae, shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for the chirped-pulse amplification technology she developed as a PhD student at the University, working with Gerard Mourou, a senior scientist at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics. The technology enabled a stunning advance in laser power by stretching, amplifying, and then recompressing a laser beam. This paved the way for a variety of applications, from Lasik eye surgery to the manufacturing of materials used in smartphones.

The biggest challenge for the students was figuring out how to “make this cutting- edge technology accessible to people who don’t have a technology background—from five or six years old to senior citizens—and also be creative so the exhibit is attractive to them,” says Dingzhe Zheng ‘19, a member of team.

Rather than try to create an exact model of what Strickland and Mourou created, the team, which also includes Ryan Walton ‘19, decided to concentrate on illustrating basic concepts underlying the technology.

For safety reasons, the exhibit uses a 100-watt LED light source rather than lasers. As Walton explains: The light first goes through a pinhole “so we can contain it, and so there isn’t a lot of stray light in the system.” Next the light passes through two lenses, “which act to focus the light into a much smaller bundle.”

This bundle of white light is then put through a high dispersion prism, which “does the act of separating the light into different colors.” As these different wavelengths angle away from the prism, they pass through a box. “It has a slider that can be moved to block some of the colors, and ground glass at the back that scatters the remaining light” so that it appears as a mix of colors on a screen behind the box.

Museum visitors will be able use the slider to select which colors they want to block – and actually see they’ve succeeded when those colors no longer appear in the mix of colors on the screen.

“They’ll learn that a bundle of light has many different wavelengths, or colors in this case, and you can take apart that bundle to look at the individual wavelengths, and then you can put it back together,” Walton says.

Students working on their projects.
At left, Hannah Goldring with 3D-printed, adjustable platform that fits on a toggle press. At right, Rebekah Abrams and Taryn Milnes demonstrate fume absorber. 
A safer, more accessible assembly line for workers with disabilities

Hannah Goldring decided to major in biomedical engineering at the University of Rochester because “it seemed like a way that I could make a direct impact on people.”

Goldring and three of her classmates—Rebekah Abrams, Taryn Milnes, and Olivia Uttamsingh—had an opportunity to do just that with their senior design project.

Working with Unistel Industries, a Rochester area company that provides employment opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the students analyzed an assembly line for producing radio dust covers for a defense contractor.

The process, which must meet exacting tolerances, includes fitting plastic knob covers and key rings onto pegs on a wood fixture, so they can be connected with cords that must then be clipped. This assemblage is then lifted off the fixture and hand carried to a toggle press where the clips are crimped. Any excess cord must then be burned off within 2 mm of the crimped clip with a burning blade (click here to see a video).

“Some parts of the process are really difficult, requiring a lot of motor skills and focus, and currently only one or two people are trained to do them,” Goldring explained.

And even then, errors creep in. For example, it is easy for the cords to tangle or the clips to shift out of place when the assemblage is picked up and moved to the toggle press.

“We wanted to minimize the number of steps and modify the assembly line to be more accessible to more individuals -- so Unistel can not only employ more people, who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity, but can also switch people around who are doing the tasks in case someone is out ill,” Goldring says.

The students created a 3D-printed, adjustable platform that fits on the toggle press, where the knobs, key rings, cords, and clips can be connected, then crimped in one place, with no picking up and carrying in between.

The students also came up with a more powerful fume absorber, with an extra filter, to better protect workers from the fumes created when the excess cord is burned off.

They even devised a long-handled, tong-like device that workers can use to hold the excess cord up to the burning blade, which can reach 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. This minimizes the chances of fingers getting burned, and it automatically burns enough of the excess cord to meet the 2 mm requirement.

Much of this was done on students’ own initiative. “When we got there, they told us to do whatever we thought was needed,” Abrams says.

Unistel has been “very encouraging,” Milnes says. “They’ve been more than flexible; they’ve answered our questions.” And they’ve given the students positive feedback. “It’s been a great partnership.”

Jiangfeng Lu gives a demonstration of the Wi-fi Enabled Video Lock during Design Day.
Jiangfeng Lu gives a demonstration of the Wi-fi Enabled Video Lock during Design Day.
‘Who’s there?’ You don’t have to be at home to find out

Meliora – ever better— is the University of Rochester motto.

But how exactly do you take something that already seems cutting edge, and make it even better?

That was the task confronting a team of electrical and computer engineering seniors who wanted to make a better door lock monitoring system for their capstone design project.

Wenzuan Cheng, Jiangfeng Lu, Tianyu Shou, Zhaodong Wang, and Lihao Yang started by studying the features of some of the best systems on the market.

And then added some features of their own.

The result: a “Wi-fi Enabled Video Lock” that allows a homeowner or apartment tenant to remotely monitor who is knocking on the door during their absence – and gives that homeowner or tenant the option to unlock the door.

“For example, maybe your friend is texting ‘I want to come into to your home,’ but you don’t know if that’s really him at the door,” says Cheng.  “This will let you turn on a livestream feature to see who’s there.”

Even in the dead of night, thanks to the use of an infrared camera.

The system allows the user to monitor the property with real-time streaming video. The lock can be opened with a key, a radio frequency identification (RFID) fob, and can also be locked and unlocked remotely from a PC and phone. The user is notified by text or email when a visitor drops by. An online log keeps track of all activity.

One of the biggest challenges, says Lu, was setting up the “the wireless communication from the client side to the server side. The project involved a lot of software.”

“This was just five senior students with no background in computer science at all, but we came up with an alternative solution with a web page and provided functions that systems currently on the market don’t have,” Cheng says. “So, we’re very proud of that.”

A student describes his project.
Adrian Cort, center, describes features of the near infrared imaging system they prepared to help surgeons rehearse a patient’s surgery ahead of time, without being exposed to X-rays.
A safer way for surgeons to rehearse operations

Urologist Ahmed Ghazi, working with colleagues at the University of Rochester Medical Center, creates lifelike, individualized polymer models of his patient’s organs.

He won over an international panel of experts at the Falling Walls Conference last fall in Berlin, describing how this allows surgeons to rehearse an individual patient’s surgery ahead of time, increasing success rates.

There’s just one drawback. “They have been practicing using X-ray imaging, just like they would during an actual surgery,” says Yuhui Du. “But the increased exposure is potentially harmful.”

Now, culminating two years of effort, Du and two Institute of Optics classmates, Adrian Cort and Kassra Eshragi, have completed a near infrared (NIR) imaging system that will allow surgeons to practice those surgeries just as realistically, but without the extra exposure to x-rays.

Students using the prototype.

Adrian Cort and Yuhui Du with prototype.

The project began last year when two senior design teams of mechanical engineering and optics students, working with Ghazi, capitalized on the fact that, even though NIR imaging cannot pass through human tissue, it can pass through the materials Ghazi uses for the simulated organs.

“Near infrared is kind of the Goldilocks zone, because if you go farther into infrared you lose resolution, but if you go towards ultraviolet you have more refraction,” Cort says.

The system sends near infrared light from an overhead illumination box down through the simulated tissues to a pair of mirrors beneath the “patient.” The mirrors reflect the tissue image to a camera.

Building on results from last year’s work—and employing not only optical but also mechanical and electrical engineering skills—the students this year:

  • Reduced the size of the illumination box using an array of LEDS and short focal length Fresnel lenses.
  • Increased the uniformity of the illumination by modifying the Fresnel lenses, adding 3D printed apertures to each lens to limit the light path to the target, and adding diffusers.
  • Developed a more rigid, compact yet easy to disassemble frame and assembly that highly resembles the x-ray C arm system currently used in the operating room.
  • Determined that the image system works best with simulated materials treated with DMSO.

Bottom line: “Our team has satisfied the primary customer requirement of utilizing NIR illumination, being compact, and even having the ability to be disassembled relatively easily. We hope that the improvements... will aid Dr. Ghazi and his team in providing the best possible care for his patients.”

A student demonstrates his project.
Stephaun Ward demonstrates the sensory wall his team created for children at the Mary Cariola Center.
Sensory wall turns ‘down time’ into a learning experience

Teresa Dulko teaches blind and visually impaired children, many of whom also have limited mobility, at the Mary Cariola Children's Center in Rochester.  Often when she goes into a classroom, some of the students will be sitting in wheelchairs waiting for other students to arrive and take their coats off.

What if the waiting students, during this “down time,” could have access to something they could reach up to and explore on their own, unsupervised and at their own pace?

Presented with this challenge, mechanical engineering students Tish Begum, Kyle Pullyblank, Ana Vaquera, and Stephaun Ward came up with a sturdy, 124-pound Mobile Interactive Sensory Wall. It includes lights, buttons, noises, and interchangeable items of various textures for the Cariola students to explore. These sensory components are mounted on two, trifold acrylic panels, supported by a steel frame that permits the panels to be tilted to accommodate children confined to reclining wheelchairs.

“I’m very pleased,” Dulko said after inspecting the finished project on Design Day. “It looks very professional. We’ll probably be using it 20 years from now.”

Vaquera was drawn to the project because of the opportunity to help children directly, and because it “gave us an opportunity for creativity, and for using many different components of engineering,” she says.

Vaquera, for example, was responsible for the extensive electrical components incorporated in the sensory wall. She credits Randall Nelson, a computer science professor, for giving her lots of good advice on putting in the lights and connecting everything.

“One of the things we had to consider is, that we can’t have too much going on or it could lead to sensory overload,” she says. “We want the children to be able to explore, but not be overwhelmed.”

Says Dulko: “The (engineering) students were great, they had a lot of ideas, and they took us through every step of what they were doing. All the procs and cons. Always looking for feedback.”

She says she was impressed at how the students visited Mary Cariola to see firsthand “what would be successful for our kids, and then incorporate it. They took it and ran with it.”

A student demonstrates his project.
Ben Schmitz demonstrates special effects using the SketchCassette plug-in he and his teammates developed.
Adding a vintage feel to modern audio recordings

A lot of the music that Ben Schmitz likes was recorded on four-track cassette tape recorders back in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“These were do-it-yourself musicians who couldn’t afford studio time,” says Schmitz ‘19, an audio and music engineering major in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “For them it was a necessity. The only way for them to record their music was by buying these cheap tapes that didn’t sound that great.”

Warble, wow and flutter are typical pitch changes caused by irregular tape motion during recording or playback.

However, the practice was used so widely, by artists with such “unique” perspectives, that it led to a “low fi (fidelity) musical aesthetic that a lot of artists are still trying to recreate,” Schmitz says.

Hence the intriguing senior design project by Schmitz and three other AME seniors: A plug-in – software program -- that can digitally recreate these distortions as creative special effects when mixing or recording music tracks with a digital audio workstation.

A sketch of the GUI.
In keeping with the low-fi aesthetic of the plug-in, Daniel Fine came up with this fanciful graphical user interface (GUI).

“In much the same way people can use sepia tone filters when they post images to Instagram,” says team member Daniel Fine ’19. “People like this nostalgic, old-time feel to things.”

There are already plug-ins on the market that attempt to emulate this low-fi aesthetic by capturing distortions directly from tape recordings. What’s different about this plug-in is that the sound effects were created digitally, “so you can have more control over them, and tweak them to sound exactly the way you want them to,” Schmitz says.

“There was a great deal of signal processing and mathematical modeling involved in this project,” says Michael Heilemann, the assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering who supervises the AME projects. Josh Hyde and Kyle Ohlschlager were also members of the team.

The project is a good example of how the audio and music engineering program at the University of Rochester enables students to combine technical skills with artistic sensibilities.

“It’s been a fascinating degree,” says Fine. “There have been times when it has very much appealed to the creative side of me. I’ve had classes where I’ve composed music for film, or where I’m mixing and mastering recording projects. But I’ve also had classes that reflect the engineering side, classes like signal and systems. So, it’s been very thorough.”

A patient tries out a new toy.
Gracyn Chappell, a patient at Golisano Children's Hospital, tries out a toy adapted by Rochester engineering students that could be used easily by children of all abilities during a hospital stay.
Bubble machine, playhouse help pediatric patients feel at ease


Gracyn Chappell’s eyes widened appreciably as she approached a mysterious tube filled with water in the play room at Golisano Children’s Hospital.

“Push the buttons, baby,” Kate Chappell prompted her 5-year-old daughter, who was completing a 22-day stay at the hospital.

And just like that, air bubbles began gurgling up through the water. They were tinted with red, then green, blue, purple, and pink light as Gracyn enthusiastically pushed different color-coded buttons.

“Oh, my goodness!” she exclaimed gleefully.

The new, 245,000 square foot Golisano Children’s Hospital at the University of Rochester was built from the ground up with the input of families. “Every inch of space – rooms, hallways, and common areas alike – were designed to provide comfort and confidence so that children and families can focus on what matters most.”

Two of this year’s design projects will help reinforce that welcoming environment.

The bubble machine was completed in a single semester by chemical engineering students Tiwalade Dairo, Bradley Porceng, Charles (C.J.) Ruff, and Benjamin Walker. They created their own, smaller version of a large bubble machine the hospital already has. The smaller version can be used at a child’s bedside and be easily operated by a child with physical disabilities.

As Walker noted in the team’s final presentation, they had to overcome several challenges and work through numerous designs to create a device that would:

  1. not easily tip over, but still be portable, waterproof, and easy to clean.
  2. integrate button-activated LED lighting, a water pump, and an Arduino control board within the base.
  3. easily generate a “soothing” combination of bubbles and colors within the water column extending from the top of the base.

“Each of us have had some coding background, but this project was really coding and wiring intensive,” says Dairo. So, the students took tutorials and got extra help in Arduino programming from Scott Russell, a lecturer and senior technical associate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“I’m really impressed at how the students took all the information we gave them and were able to create a device that will work for us.” says Geri Sehnert, a child life specialist in Golisano’s pediatric surgical center. “We’re trying to normalize the experiences of the children who come here as much as possible,” “When we can give them things like this to interact with, that let the children experience normal sensations, it makes a big difference in their healing.”

Read more here.

A student describes the features of her project.
Caption: Lindsey Medalla describes the features of the hospital playhouse she and her teammates created for Golisano Children’s Hospital, to help children feel more at ease when they are admitted there.

Mechanical engineering students Nancy Bansbach, River Burgess, Lilly Gonzalez, Antonio Hernandez, and Lindsey Medalla achieved a similar success with their playhouse model of the hospital, featuring a patient room, operating room, playroom, and imaging room.  The team designed the playhouse out of high-density polyethylene and also furnished it with 3D printed designs to create lifelike furniture and equipment seen in the hospital.

The students spared no effort to make the playhouse as realistic as possible.

“The image on the ceiling of the operating room is the actual view when children are laying down on the operating table,” Medalla says. “When I took pictures, they had me go into the operating room and lie on the table and take a picture—so children can see this image when they play with the toys and get accustomed to that view, and be less afraid when they go in.”

Close up showing details of the hospital playhouse.

She says she spent a lot of time in a hospital herself as a child. “I thought it would be cool to make a toy for kids at a hospital so they can learn more about how a hospital operates and be less afraid of things like getting an MRI and having surgery.”

Wendy Lane, child life coordinator at Golisano says “We were excited to have the opportunity to work with the (student) team. They had such great ideas and energy. They really listened to our needs and delivered beyond our expectations. And we love how they incorporated real photos of the hospital in the design.”

The playhouse will be placed in a playroom for pediatric patients and their families.